As a defiant Saddam Hussein threatened to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes, the Clinton administration warned the Iraqi leader on Monday of unspecified “firm action” within the next few days if he continues to prevent United Nations weapons inspectors from doing their job.
Saddam triggered the latest crisis by refusing to allow U.S. members of the U.N. inspection team to view weapons sites, in effect halting inspections authorized by the 1991 Persian Gulf War cease-fire.
“It is our view that the (U.N.) Security Council should be prepared to take firm action to bring about Iraqi compliance in the event they don’t change their mind,” State Department spokesman James Rubin said.
With a three-member U.N. mission team on its way to Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam not to interfere with U.N. inspectors, including those from the United States, the Iraqi government issued a threat to shoot down American spy planes that fly over its territory as part of the U.N. monitoring operation. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, called the threat an “irresponsible escalation.”
The administration also said it reserves the right to take unilateral military action if Saddam remains defiant, but Rubin said “that is not what our next step is about,” indicating diplomatic pressure through U.N. auspices will first be applied.
The chief U.N. arms inspector, Richard Butler, said late Monday that he was ordering his teams back to work today despite Iraq’s order excluding Americans.
“We will go back to work in the normal way in Iraq tomorrow,” Butler said. “We will keep on doing it and we will do it knowing the (Security) Council completely supports that approach.” He said the American spy planes would continue flying.
Administration officials and policy analysts suggested Saddam was attempting to divide America’s allies and win concessions concerning inspections of his military facilities.
The administration said it would not countenance any negotiating with Saddam, who was quoted through news reports as saying that the U.N. team was coming for a “dialogue” on weapons inspections. Iraqi officials were quoted as saying that only U.S. representatives were barred from U.N. inspections - a situation the administration rejected.
“This is not the bazaar,” Rubin said. “He (Saddam) has to accept the responsibility of complying with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.” Presidential press secretary Mike McCurry added that “this is not a dialogue.”
Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and a former special assistant to President George Bush, said the “administration is beating the drums, trying to build up diplomatic support to try to get Saddam to back down.”
Allied support for confronting Saddam has eroded, he said, especially among Security Council members such as France and Russia. But he added that President Clinton ultimately will succeed if he builds the case among allies for a unified front to force Saddam to back down.
McCurry said the Iraqi leader is mistaken if he believes he can “exploit nuances” of weakness in the international community. Saddam’s actions, McCurry said, have only succeeded in uniting U.S. allies against him. The administration said that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s talks with leaders indicate little wavering among allies.
“What the U.S. wants to avoid is either of two outcomes: Letting Saddam get away with this or using military force without the blessing of the Security Council,” Haass said. “Either one is a serious blow to the sanctions regime.”
France emphasized Monday the Security Council should approve any new moves against Baghdad.
“It is up to the Security Council, and the Security Council alone, to determine the extent to which its resolutions have been respected by Iraq,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt.
American spy planes routinely fly over Iraq in support of U.N. weapons monitoring as part of the cease-fire agreement. Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, intensified the crisis when he handed a letter to Butler, the chief arms inspector, demanding a halt to the flights.
The letter warned that “our anti-aircraft artillery is open everywhere in anticipation of a possible aggression” if the flights continued.
“This is a direct military threat against the United Nations,” Richardson said.
While Saddam’s threats against U.S. planes were not taken lightly, few in the administration believe he will carry them out.
In Baghdad, Saddam told the Iraqi News Agency that he was welcoming the U.N. team to conduct a “dialogue which puts things in their right order (so) that rights and obligations will be made crystal clear without any ambiguity or procrastination.”
U.N. inspectors have been trying to determine whether Iraq has complied with orders to destroy weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons. The United States suspects Iraq is trying to hide banned weapons. Iraq says the United States is dragging its feet in certifying that Baghdad should be free of sanctions.
Graphic: Standoff: Iraq and U.N. inspectors